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Introducing Baby to the Family Pet

cat with baby picture

When Jennifer Merritt brought her baby, Arielle, home from the hospital, her cherished dogs had very different reactions. Her boxer, Sonya, was immediately gentle and protective. But Tiger, the Pomeranian, was less welcoming: "If any diapers or toys were on the floor, he peed on them!" says the Greenbrier, Arkansas, mom.

Tiger isn't the first dog to feel jealous of a baby. From a pet's perspective, there's a new star in town who's stealing his spotlight. Even the most gentle animal will probably act up if he doesn't get his usual attention. These simple steps will help your pet adjust -- and keep your baby safe.

Introduce Them with Care
Baby and cat

Your newborn and pet's first encounter can set the tone for their relationship. To make it as smooth as possible, try this trick from Caryn Ruiz, of Raleigh, North Carolina: "Before we left the hospital, my husband took blankets home to our dog, Daisy, so she'd know our newborn Devon's smell." When you get home, have your husband carry the baby so you can greet your pet without worrying about her jumping on you. A cat will likely be aloof at first, while a dog will probably want to investigate right away.

To introduce your baby, get down on your pet's level and let her have a hello sniff. Don't panic and pull your newborn away unless your pet is growling or hissing, because it'll send the message that the baby is a threat.

Learn the Safety Basics

No matter how smoothly the introduction goes, there are certain safety rules you should follow, says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Number one: Never leave your baby alone with the pet. Even the gentlest animal can react unpredictably. Your baby's crying could startle your cat, or your dog could suddenly become territorial. Consider setting up baby gates to limit your pet's access. To keep your cat from jumping into the bassinet, try putting mosquito netting over the top. Cats hate sticky paws, so keep the crib and changing table off-limits by lining the edges with sticky strips made for furniture (available in most pet stores). You can also train your dog to sleep in a crate.

Let Them "Play" Together

Give your pet as much attention as possible: If he feels included, he's less likely to act up. "One mistake parents make is putting the baby to sleep and then playing with the pet," says Pia Silvani, coauthor of Raising Puppies & Kids Together. "The pet learns that when the baby's gone, the good times start. It's better to associate your baby with fun." Don't shut your pet out when you and your infant are having quiet time. Give your pet a treat while rocking your child or bring the dog along for a walk. Never tie his leash to the stroller, though: He could take off and tip it over.

Help Your Baby and Pet Bond

Initially, your little one will be oblivious to your pet's presence. But by about 4 months, she'll start to discover a friendly creature. Rosie McKinney of Oshawa, Ontario, found that her daughter, Amber, was entertained by her boxer, Floyd: "Amber thought it was so funny when I was holding her and Floyd tried to nudge his way in." Your pet also provides new sensations that can help your baby's development, says Dennis Vickers, MD, a pediatrician at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, in Chicago. Try guiding your baby's hand to touch your pet's fur. When your child's between 5 and 6 months old, her eyesight will be good enough to track your cat's every move. Rolling a ball to your dog can help your baby's hand-eye coordination. Seeing your pet across the room might motivate your child to crawl.

Be Careful When Your Baby's on the Move

Once your little one can crawl, you'll need to be even more vigilant. "For a pet, a crawling baby can be especially scary," says Dr. Beaver. Watch for signs of pet aggression like growling, hissing, whining, crouching, or folded-down ears -- but don't punish her. She's probably scared. Separate the two of them, and if it's happening a lot, talk to your veterinarian.

It's important to keep your pet's food and litter box in a place your baby can't reach, like the basement or laundry room. This also protects your baby by giving the animal a place to escape if she needs a break. To prep your pet for your baby's increasing interaction with her, gently pull her tail, fur, and ears. (Make it a game and include treats so it's not traumatic.) And don't forget to pick up your pet's toys -- even if they're not a choking hazard, they're covered in germs and your pet might guard them from your baby.

Infection Protection

Although it rarely happens, pets can pass along diseases like rabies, cat scratch disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and ringworm. Take these precautions to keep your kids safe.

  • Make sure your pet gets regular checkups at the vet, and treat issues like worms or fleas right away.
  • Check outdoor pets for ticks, which can carry Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
  • Be extra careful to wash your baby's hands after she's touched any domestic animal.
  • Don't let your pet lick your little one's face, hands, or feet for at least the first few months because you never know where her mouth has been.
  • Remember to wash your hands after touching your pet before you breastfeed or prepare formula.
  • Keep your pet's nails trimmed to avoid scratches, which could get infected.
  • Wash pets outside to avoid spreading germs where you prepare food and bathe your baby.

Animal Dangers

There are certain pets that babies -- and all kids under 5 -- should avoid completely because they can carry salmonella and other dangerous germs.

  • Lizards
  • Baby chicks
  • Turtles
  • Snakes
  • Frogs & toads
  • Ducklings